Swan song

Whooper Swans by Tom Langlands

Caerlaverock on the Solway Firth is famous for its wintering barnacle geese, but it is the beautiful and enchanting whooper swans that draw Tom Langlands back year after year.

Photograph: Tom Langlands

First published in autumn 2010

The days grow shorter and the temperature is dropping. The ospreys are headed south, following the swallows and swifts to warmer climes. The never-ending cycle of winged migration continues and I feel slightly sad as the summer visitors depart. However, the same invisible power that pulls our feathered friends away also draws new ones to us – quite literally in their thousands. There are many locations in Scotland where migratory birds overwinter, but few places where they can be observed with such ease or in such numbers as Caerlaverock in Dumfries and Galloway.

Here, the most famous winter visitors are undoubtedly the huge numbers of barnacle geese that arrive from Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, yet the picture hasn’t always been so rosy. Although the area offers an ideal estuarine habitat of mudflats and merse (saltmarsh), by the end of World War II there were only some 300 visiting geese. Thanks to the influential conservationist Peter Scott and the Duke of Norfolk, who owned the land, Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve was established in 1957. For the first time, a policy of managing disparate land interests – agriculture, wildfowling, fishing and conservation – was agreed. Further assistance came when the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) took over Eastpark Farm on the edge of the Reserve in 1970, and began consolidating and expanding the area’s natural habitats.

Today we reap the benefit of such vision with 30,000 barnacle geese now wintering in the area alongside pink-footed and greylag geese. To see formations of geese streaking through the skies, whilst thousands march across fields below, is a spectacular sight. Yet it is another of Caerlaverock’s visitors that draws me back again and again.

Walking along an avenue of leafless winter branches, I leave footprints on the frosted ground. Icicles melt on hedgerows as the morning sunshine dissolves the mist. Then I hear them … ‘whoop, whoop-whoop’. The sound gets closer, louder … and then they appear over the tree tops. Sometimes it is just two or three, other times many more. They glide on big, snow-white wings with elongated necks piercing the way ahead. One sees me and cocks its head to assess the danger. That unmistakable yellow and black bill gives another resounding ‘whoop’. Then they drop behind the trees and I hear the sound of webbed feet hitting water. The whooper swans are back.

Whooper swan with satellite tracker

Dangerous journey

The 25,000 whooper swans that travel annually to the UK and Ireland are residents of Iceland. As we were reminded earlier this year, it is one of the most actively volcanic places on Earth. In certain areas, the hot bubbling springs mean that not all Iceland’s whoopers need to escape the cold of winter and around 2,000 remain year round.

Other than around Reykjavik, Iceland is sparsely populated. This is good news for the swans that are spread across the island. Wetland birds, whoopers build their nests near areas of water that have good supplies of aquatic vegetation for food. Being social animals they live within family groups and larger colonies, becoming more territorial during the mating season. They pair for life, although ‘divorce’ occurs occasionally, and breeding birds are usually four or five years old. However, only a small percentage of whoopers actually breed, with three or four cygnets being the norm and occasional broods of five or six.

As the Arctic chill moves south from around mid-October, the whoopers – some with juveniles only a couple of months old – prepare to leave Iceland. Gathering in small groups, characteristic head bobbing and loud whooping gives notice of their intention to fly. Running on land or water to gain speed they spread those huge wings and take off, often into a cloudless starry night. Staying close to the surface of the sea they head for the coast of Scotland; white shapes lit by moonlight casting dark moving shadows on the waves below. Wing beats are almost inaudible and only the ‘whoops’ cut through the night. At an average speed of 70km per hour the northern lights soon fade and the perilous journey begins in earnest.

If all goes well, many birds will rest on the Isle of Lewis before moving further south. The journey may be made in a single flight or spread over several days. Sometimes bad weather hits them hard. Exhausted birds perish at sea or get blown miles off course. Youngsters rely on the experience of parents but the survival of the group cannot be jeopardised if one bird falls by the wayside. This is not a journey of choice, but of necessity and survival.

Homecoming

When the birds finally arrive at Caerlaverock it is time for WWT rangers to take stock – a task they have undertaken for more than 30 years. Some 500 whoopers come to the area with around 300 staying on the reserve itself. Rangers count them in, carefully checking numbers on ringed birds. It is always exciting to see parents arriving with new offspring, for the same birds tend to return each year. Equally, however, it is a sad occasion when a bird known to have left Iceland remains unaccounted for.

Once here, the whoopers are sometimes seen alongside resident mute swans but, with recognisable yellow and black bills emitting their frequent and distinctive call, the new arrivals are easily distinguished. Whoopers are also similar in appearance to the migratory Bewick’s swan, but with a weight of around 10kg are bigger and have less black in their bill pattern.

Each winter, WWT catches large numbers of whoopers to collect essential data. Birds are weighed, measured, have blood samples taken to check for viruses and toxins, and ringed. Additionally, a handful of birds will have lightweight transmitters fitted. Funded by Collaborative Offshore Wind Research Into the Environment (COWRIE), the transmitters are part of a satellite-tracking project to improve understanding of the impact of offshore wind farms on migratory birds. Using the ‘Super Whooper’ website it is possible to follow the migration of individual birds as they are tracked in real-time.

Research is key, but raising awareness through education is also vital. Brian Morrell, Learning Manager at WWT Caerlaverock, promotes education programmes aimed at all levels of interest. Brian explained that getting youngsters involved at an early age is important. Hence local primary schools have named and adopted birds. Visitors to the Super Whooper website may well have witnessed the aptly named Supersonic Bill complete last year’s 800-kilometre journey in an incredible 14 hours.



Cause for optimism

With international law now protecting whooper swans it would be reasonable to assume that the birds should reach their normal lifespan of 10–12 years without facing significant danger. Sadly, this is not the case, with lead shot still a particular problem. Although banned on wetlands in Scotland, it is permitted in Iceland. Shot from spent gun cartridges or fishing is swallowed by the birds and just three pellets will cause a prolonged and painful death. According to Richard Hesketh, Manager of WWT Caerlav-erock, ingestion is only part of the problem. He has taken X-rays of many birds and, staggeringly, around 14% of whoopers have lead pellets embedded in their bodies as a consequence of being shot.

Overhead power lines are another hazard, but following pressure from the local community and WWT, Scottish Power responded admirably by changing problem lines around Caerlaverock to underground supplies. Despite the hazards, the swan population is healthy and growing steadily, to the extent that WWT no longer regard whoopers to be a conservation concern.

Despite the hazards, the swan population is healthy and growing steadily

But why do the birds come specifically to this area? It is thanks largely to the presence of the Gulf Stream which helps keep the climate mild while, until recently, the area was predominantly wetland, providing a plentiful diet of aquatic plants and grasses. Today much of it has been claimed for farming but it hasn’t affected the swans adversely. They have adapted well, feeding on stubble, waste crops – potatoes are a favourite – and spilt grain. Favouring decaying vegetation also means that there is little conflict with local farmers.

At Caerlaverock, birds can also take advantage of twice-daily swan feeds and in the Peter Scott Observatory visitors can get closer to whoopers than probably anywhere else. You can also see wigeon from Russia, teal, mallard, the occasional pochard and thousands upon thousands of geese.

Take a stroll down the romantically named Robin Trail to see robins, treecreepers, and dozens of smaller birds, then down to the shoreline to see waders on the merse including knot and dunlin as well as hunting peregrine falcons, hen harriers and merlin. Elsewhere, it is possible to watch badgers feeding, see tadpole shrimps that date back to pre-dinosaur times and maybe encounter a rare natterjack toad from the UK’s most northerly colony before it hibernates for winter.

Apart from its role in wetland conservation, this area of Scotland has also played its part in the nation’s evolution. From the stunning medieval ruins of Caerlaverock Castle – also on the edge of the National Nature Reserve – to the Robert Burns Trail, there is much to see and do for all ages. However, do remember to say hello to the whooper swans – they have travelled a long way to be with us.



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